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Town divided after Sendai nuclear plant restart clears another hurdle

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The city hosting the Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture has decided to approve a resumption of operations at the facility, highlighting a conflict between people who benefit from the largesse of the industry and those who do not.

Assembly members in Satsumasendai voted 19-4 to restart the reactors as soon as possible in an almost 3½-hour meeting interrupted frequently by the shouts of protesters opposing the measure.

The two reactors are the first of Japan’s atomic plants in line to restart under tougher safety rules set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the agency created after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster to restore confidence in the industry. Japan’s 48 operable reactors are idle and their future is creating a deep divide over atomic power.

Nowhere is that debate more acute than in Ichikikushikino, a city of 30,000 residents south of the Sendai facility. For decades, residents of Ichikikushikino saw the plant in the neighboring city as a benign force, gently boosting their languid rural economy.

While Ichikikushikino received little of the direct handouts that paid for projects including a bridge, a library and a history museum in Satsumasendai, the power station drew workers and other visitors to its stores and restaurants.

That calculation changed after Fukushima illustrated the dangers posed by the Sendai reactors, which are situated less than 5.4 km from the city. The municipality is now demanding a say in the fate of the two units, despite a convention limiting decision-making to a plant’s host city.

The mayor for Satsumasendai, Hideo Iwakiri, said after the assembly vote that he consents to the resumption of the reactors. Officials from the surrounding prefecture of Kagoshima must also agree.

Tuesday’s assembly approval is one of the final steps before the plant’s operator, Kyushu Electric Power Co., can fire up its reactors, returning Japan to the nuclear family for the first time in more than a year. While the regulator said last month that the plant met its beefed-up safety standards, opinion polls show the majority of Japanese remain opposed.

Much of Ichikikushikino’s economy is based on fish harvested from along its coast and the orange groves, rice fields and other farms surrounding its sprawling streets of tile-roofed homes. Workers in its government office building wear short-sleeved polo shirts with the town’s motto, “City of Food,” over its logo, which features a ring of fish, farm animals, and fruits and vegetables. The town is known for its “shochu” distilled liquor and “kushiage” fried fish cake.

“If a nuclear disaster happens, nobody’s going to buy another single bottle of shochu or another single piece of kushiage from us,” said Kazuya Tanaka, an Ichikikushikino real estate agent who became a city assembly member after the Fukushima accident to fight for the permanent idling of the Sendai plant. “We just won’t be able to sell it anymore.”

Nuclear opponents in the town say they could be blanketed with radiation from a meltdown at Sendai. The town sits within 30 km of the plant, the scope of the evacuation zone imposed after the Fukushima disaster, and more than half of its residents have signed a petition opposing the restart. Ninety-nine percent of Ichikikushikino’s residents live within 20 km of the Sendai nuclear plant, Tanaka said.

“What we’re seeing now is the social side effects of Fukushima, where communities that had not before recognized the potential cost of nuclear power are now all too well aware of it,” Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science who focuses on Japan and disaster recovery at Purdue University, said before the vote.

Others questioning the restart of reactors embraced by their hosts include Kyoto Prefecture, which has asked for the same rights to approve Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi station as those given to adjacent Fukui Prefecture, where it is located.

In the city of Hakodate, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, officials have filed a lawsuit to stop the restart of Electric Power Development Co.’s Oma reactor about 30 km away.

“They’re understanding now that there could be a problem that would make them lose their homes, they could have to leave their kids’ stuff behind and they’re getting none of the money,” Aldrich said. “It’s deeply unfair.”

While utilities are not legally obligated to seek agreement from local officials for restarts, it is a long-observed convention. The system — along with the generous rewards for cities hosting plants — dates back to the dawn of nuclear energy in Japan, when the government needed to win over a population suspicious of nuclear power after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The government also deemed a soft touch was needed for the siting of nuclear reactors after efforts to forcibly remove farmers from the site of Tokyo’s Narita airport in the 1960s led to years of protests that left several dead, Aldrich said.

Japan allows utilities a surcharge on ratepayers’ bills that is collected by the government and redistributed to cities hosting nuclear plants.

Satsumasendai earns about ¥1.2 billion a year from the government-managed fund, in addition to about ¥400 million from a special nuclear fuel tax, said Osamu Kamiohsako, policy division chief for Satsumasendai city. Kyushu Electric has paid the city ¥27 billion since the plant began operating about 30 years ago. The money has been used to build bridges and other projects.

Ichikikushikino, meanwhile, receives about ¥90 million a year from the fund, accounting for less than a percent of the city’s annual income, said Kimihiko Izumi, a policy division staffer for that city.

“When I saw what happened in Fukushima, I worried something like that could happen here,” a merchant on Ichikikushikino’s central shopping street said prior to the assembly meeting, asking that her name not be used because she fears her business would be hurt if she’s seen taking sides. “I didn’t used to have an opinion, but after that, I’m afraid of nuclear power.”

Restarting Sendai would signal a quickening pace toward making other utilities’ nuclear plants operable, said Tom O’Sullivan, founder of Tokyo-based energy consultant Mathyos.

Japan’s fleet of reactors was shut for maintenance or safety checks after the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 station. The last of the reactors was idled in September 2013.

“If they do manage to restart these, it would obviously make the follow-on reactors a lot easier to deal with,” O’Sullivan said. “It kind of opens up the path to further restarts in different areas.”

The Sendai plant’s restart could serve as a rallying point for nuclear opponents, especially if it’s seen to be riding roughshod over the wishes of communities such as Ichikikushikino, said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. Fifty-nine percent of those responding to a nationwide poll by the Asahi newspaper said they were opposed to the Sendai reactors’ restart.

“Will this create a backlash? I imagine it will,” Kingston said. “Most people will see the government more or less ramming this through against popular opinion.”